Saving China’s Wetlands – Can the Red Line Hold?

By Yu Xiubo

Beidagang Web
More than one million migratory birds and 200 species visit the endangered Beidagang wetland outside of Tianjin each year. Coastal wetlands are the most threatened but least protected ecosystem in China.

February 2 marked the 20th World Wetlands Day. The main theme this year is “Wetlands for our Future: Sustainable Livelihoods,” highlighting not only the importance of wetlands to human’s future, but also their great importance in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Wetlands are the gene pool for biodiversity protection, bearing multiple functions, such as flood diversion and storage, coastline protection, and carbon storage. They are also a key source of human livelihood. Around 1 billion people in the world benefit from wetlands by means of fisheries, rice-planting and ecotourism, and more. But unfortunately the functions and value of wetlands have not yet been widely recognized, and many of them are occupied or reclaimed as wasteland. According to the Ramsar Convention, more than 64% of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed since 1900. The data from the second national wetland resource survey released in 2014 indicates that China has a total wetland area of 53.6026 million hectares, a reduction of 3.3963 million hectares (two times the area of Beijing), or 8.82%, compared with the first survey, completed in 2003.

Yet conservation and development always seem to be conflicting with each other, and so is the case with wetlands. China’s wetlands have witnessed a number of large developments, including the development of the Great Northern Wilderness in Northeast China’s Three River Plain in the 1950s and 1960s, the Flood Storage and Land Reclaim Project in the mid- and downstream of Yangtze River, and land reclamation projects. These activities aimed to produce more food and cotton for better livelihood in China. They were carried out due to special needs and historic reasons, and their impacts are not to be blamed too much. However, after the catastrophic flood disasters along the Yangtze River and Songhua River in 1998, the government and scholars finally realized the essential role of lake wetlands in the diversion and storage of floodwater. Since then, lake wetlands restoration projects have been launched, including leveling embankments for flood running, farmland conversion to lake wetlands, relocation of residents, and township-building. Furthermore, the reclamation of marsh wetlands in Songnen Plain and Three River Plain in Northeast China were regarded as illegal.

Unlike lake wetlands and marsh wetlands, reclamation and conversion projects of coastal wetlands have never stopped, but rather scaled up. Currently, there are 5.7959 million hectares of coastal wetlands in China, accounting for 10.85% of the total wetlands nationwide. Some 1.3612 million hectares of coastal wetlands have been lost since the 1st survey (larger than the area of Tianjin Municipality), a reduction of 22.91%, faster than the average pace of wetland disappearance in China.

Over the past half century, China has lost 53% of temperate coastal wetlands, 73% of mangroves and 80% of coral reefs. The “Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China,” jointly implemented by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Paulson Institute, indicates that over the ten years since 2000, 320,000 hectares of coastal wetlands were reclaimed by coastal prefectures to meet the needs for industrial parks, ports and other infrastructure due to increasing urbanization and economic growth, leading to the loss of habitat for migrant birds and thus posing a direct threat to critically endangered migratory waterfowls, such as the spoon-billed sandpiper, spotted greenshank, Dalmatian pelican, Chinese crested tern, and the black-faced spoonbill.

However, the disappearance of coastal wetlands continues. According to marine functional zoning of the 11 coastal provinces and cities, a total of 246,900 hectares have been approved for reclamation projects by 2020. As a result, the red line of 800 million mu of wetlands established by the government will be broken by 2018. This means that our country’s wetlands are already in imminent danger of reaching their ecological bottom line, and the goal of maintaining the red line is therefore extremely challenging.

The reasons for reclamation and occupation of wetlands are deeply rooted in current systems and mechanisms, which include inadequate laws and regulations, as well as conflicts among forestry, fishery and ocean administration agencies. For instance, in the land use classification system published by the Ministry of Land and Resources, wetlands are still regarded as unused land, on par with wasteland. As a result, many local governments are allowed by law to occupy wetlands for a purpose of “rebalancing farmland use.” The wetlands are therefore becoming the victim of 1.8 billion mu of development on farmland.

However, it is gratifying that the country has initiated great efforts in wetland conservation, and has made it an integral component of China’s development of an ecological civilization. The Opinions for Promoting Ecological Civilization Construction issued in April specified that the area of wetlands in China shall not fall below 800 million mu; and eco-space and wetland area shall be further expanded. The General Scheme for Ecological Civilization System Reform issued in September requires the establishment of wetland conservation mechanisms to include all wetlands into the scope of protection and prohibit the unauthorized occupation of important international and national wetlands and wetland nature reserves.

The core aim of the wetland conservation efforts is to maintain the red line of 800 million mu and ensure no loss of natural wetlands. Protection measures for rescue purposes will be taken for key waterfowl habitats, and illegal reclamation and occupation of natural wetlands will be banned. Restoration measures of “returning two or three parcels of land for occupying one parcel of wetland” are being introduced for key national and local construction projects to ensure that the area of natural wetlands will not shrink and the functions of the wetlands will not deteriorate.

China’s wetland conservation efforts will require comprehensive cooperation among government agencies, companies and the public. Conservation efforts involve over ten departments in charge of forestry, oceans, fisheries, land resources, environmental protection, as well as administrative regions at all levels (province, municipality and township). Therefore, it is impossible for any individual department or region to complete the task alone.

But wetland conservation should not solely rely on governmental support. The corporations and public entities that occupied wetlands should also bear the responsibilities of wetland restoration. Ecotourism companies that make use of wetlands should prioritize wetland conservation and avoid new damage from over-development. Communities relying on wetlands should follow the principles of sustainability and avoid over-fishing. Environmental protection organizations (including grassroots ones) should be more active in wetland-related communication, environmental education, promotion of public awareness and participation in conservation. In short, wetland conservation efforts require the extensive involvement of all sectors, and economic growth and environmental protection must be pursued in parallel.

Yu Xiubo is a researcher of Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS and a core member of the Blueprint of Coastal Wetland Conservation and Management in China (known as the “Blueprint Project”), co-launched by the Paulson Institute. He is responsible for the coordination, operation, and day-to-day management of the project. The Chinese version of this article was first published on China Science Daily.